How I plan to support myself as an independent journalist
At the beginning of June I said goodbye to all my marketing clients. Over the previous two years I had built a very robust freelance content marketing business for myself; companies would pay me monthly retainers to leverage my journalism skills to create content for their blogs, publications, social media accounts, and email newsletters. I would write everything from ghostwritten op-eds for executives to longform articles that involved interviewing multiple sources (for those interested in reading more about how I built out this business, I wrote about it at MediaShift).
I was extremely proud of myself for having struck out on my own, but I still felt unfulfilled. After all, the only reason I had accidentally stumbled into this line of work was because of my career in journalism. My first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter, and I later went on to work as an assistant managing editor for US News & World Report and freelance for publications like The Atlantic, New York, and Scientific American. I’ve always had a love for reading and writing longform journalism, and though the process is painstaking, nothing gives me more pleasure than piecing together and writing a narrative that spans thousands of words.
I’ve also been long fascinated with independent online publishing. I submitted short stories to webzines in the late 90s and launched my first blog in 2003 while a freshman in college. After I got my first newspaper job, I started taking my newly learned journalism skills and applying them to my blog, in some cases breaking major news stories that landed me interviews on the radio and in major newspapers (this was back when it wasn’t widely accepted for journalists to maintain blogs on the side, so I would have to sneak out of the newsroom to get interviewed on the radio about stuff I’d written online. I didn’t find out until much later that my editors knew about my blog the entire time). Some of my favorite pieces of journalism over the years were things I published on my own website without the help of an established media brand.
So yes, while I had built a successful career as a freelance content marketer, writing articles for corporate clients wasn’t scratching the journalism itch that drew me to this industry in the first place. At first, I tried to scratch this itch by restructuring my client work so I had Fridays free; I would spend Monday through Thursday tackling client work, and on Fridays I could work on my own journalism projects. At first, this restructuring felt like a great balance. I produced journalism I was extremely proud of, including a profile of Techdirt’s Mike Masnick and an article on the rise of indie newsletters.
But it wasn’t too long before having one day a week to work on my own journalism just wasn’t enough. During any week in which I had to travel or take any time off, my writing day was the first on the chopping block so I could complete my client work. It could sometimes take months to publish a new article, which meant it was extremely difficult to build any sort of momentum or audience for my work. And while I’d established great relationships with my clients and was proud of the work I did for them, creating corporate marketing content was getting less and less rewarding.
So at some point in 2016 I began thinking seriously about ways I could monetize my own journalism. I knew I didn’t want to employ any sort of advertising-based business models, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, such a model would create warped incentives that would result in me chasing traffic for traffic’s sake, which means I would have to abandon longform original journalism in favor of publishing dozens of shortform curated posts a day. I also didn’t want to chase down and manage relationships with advertisers, nor install ad-tech that would be abusive to consumers.
I eventually became fixated on business models that involved consumers paying for content. This included the payment approaches of major media brands like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, independent writers like Ben Thompson, YouTubers and podcasters who supplemented their income using platforms like Patreon, and authors who self-published ebooks. There were two main insights I gleaned from this research: 1. People are more likely to pay for your content if it’s truly original, and 2. They are more likely to pay for it if it helps them at their jobs.
Luckily, my journalism meets both criteria. It’s rare that I pursue a commodity news story; every article I work on has some kind of original angle. And because I focus entirely on the intersection of technology and media — or put another way: the business of online content — my journalism is relevant to anyone working in marketing, advertising, public relations, journalism, media, or for the millions of small business owners who must conduct their own digital marketing. Whether it’s an article about how publishers are using A/B testing on Facebook or a piece about how a magazine grew its audience by 844 percent, my journalism gives you key insights on how to improve your online content game and better monetize it.
After months of research, I settled on a business model that includes both a diversified revenue stream and scalability. Below I outline the different kinds of content I intend to produce and how I’ll leverage it to create a sustainable, independent journalism career:
Free content: For those who are anathema to paying for digital content, I’ll still be publishing plenty of free stuff. I’ll write one feature-length article a week that will be published to my website, Medium, and LinkedIn. I’ll also continue writing my weekly newsletter that’s packed with tech and media analysis. I’ll post to my new semi-daily vlog, and of course I’ll curate and comment on the news on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. My hope is that I can get people reading my free content and then eventually convert them into paying readers.
Weekly subscription newsletter: In addition to my weekly free article, I will also publish a once-a-week, feature-length article that’s delivered to the inboxes of subscribers who pay $4 a month (roughly $1 per week). I decided to go with a newsletter rather than setting up some kind of paywall so that subscribers don’t have to juggle yet another username and password. Most of the articles delivered via the newsletter will be above 1,500 words and be jam packed with insights, analysis, and original research. To subscribe to the paid newsletter, go to my Patreon page.
A private Facebook group and personal access: For those who pay $8 a month, you’ll not only receive the weekly subscription newsletter, but you’ll also gain access to a private Facebook group that I’ll be posting to and interacting on regularly. This will give you more direct access to me personally; I’ll be visiting the page on a near-daily basis, responding to posts, and soliciting input. My hope is that I’ll build a small community of like-minded readers who will benefit from each other just as much as they do from my journalism. To subscribe to this feature, go to my Patreon page.
Ebooks: Some people might not want to become regular subscribers to my work but instead would be interested in reading all my articles on a single topic or category. So I plan on repackaging all my articles on, say, crowdfunding or online video and presenting them as chapters in an ebook. I’ll be distributing these ebooks via Amazon, iBooks, and all other major marketplaces.
Speaking opportunities and staff trainings: Over the last few years I’ve accepted several paid speaking opportunities and have developed presentations on predetermined topics. For instance, I gave a presentation on headline writing to a NYC news org and a talk on incorporating social media into public relations to the PR team of a major association. These talks are fun to give, help me enhance my own personal brand, and aren’t too much of a time burden to prepare.
So that’s my plan. As I mentioned, I wound down all my client work at the beginning of June, and for the last month I’ve been producing new feature-length articles and laying the groundwork for this launch. In just the last few weeks I’ve published articles on how famous YouTubers are monetizing their audiences with online courses, a USA Today journalist who quit his job and is making a living through Patreon, and GOOD Magazine’s strategy for growing its audience by 844 percent.
So let’s say you’re already a fan of my journalism and want to support it. What ways can you do that?
Subscribe to my Patreon: Whether it’s the $4 newsletter level or the $8 Facebook group + newsletter tier, Patreon is the main vehicle I’ll be using to support myself. Their platform is super simple to use, and if, after a few months, you decide you don’t want to subscribe anymore, unsubscribing is a cinch.
Subscribe to my free newsletter: I’ve been writing my tech and media newsletter for a few years now, and in addition to alerting you to new articles I’ve published, it also contains plenty of original writing and analysis. For instance, in recent issues I’ve talked about everything from the importance of consistency when building an online audience to whether Apple will build out its own advertising platform for podcasts. You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
Share this article: I don’t expect anyone who’s never read any of my stuff to automatically become a subscriber, but this article can serve as a gateway to my various channels in case someone is curious and would like to see more. Hopefully by the fourth or fifth time someone reads an article of mine they’ll be hooked and decide to make the plunge into my paid content.
Well, that’s all I have to say for now. This is obviously a huge experiment for me and I don’t quite know what to expect. I’ve been closely studying other similar business models and I’m confident as to the quality of my journalism, but I also know it’s difficult to get consumers to open up their wallets and pay for content. My hope is that whatever insights I gain from this experiment I can share with you as I go. Wish me luck!